Time and circumstances were closing in on President Obama in 2011. The presidential election was fast approaching. He had no major accomplishments to his credit that the public supported. Enthusiasm among his ardent supporters had waned and skepticism about his leadership efforts among the general public had increased.
He was desperately in need of allies, and the Spanish-speaking-descent community represented one of his best opportunities. As one report put it, "The stakes are high, both for Obama and the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Latinos are now the nation's largest minority group, and they will be a crucial voting bloc in battleground states like North Carolina, New Mexico, Colorado, and Florida in next year's presidential race."
Activists from that community wanted him to deliver an immigration bill that would provide a pathway to citizenship for 11.5 illegal aliens, some three-fourths of whom were from Latin America. Yet the president could not do that with Republican support and they were unlikely to support any bill without serious enforcement efforts.
The president first tried to satisfy Republicans by touting its enforcement bone fides. In 2010, the Washington Post headline read: "Deportation of illegal immigrants increases under Obama administration". The article began: "In a bid to remake the enforcement of federal immigration laws, the Obama administration is deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants and auditing hundreds of businesses that blithely hire undocumented workers."
Similarly, also in 2010, the New York Times headlined that "Deportations From U.S. Hit a Record High" and noted that, "The overall figures for deportations increased slightly from about 389,000 in the 2009 fiscal year, also a record at the time."
However, the Times noted that, "As midterm elections approach, Obama administration officials are facing intense pressure to show they are tough on illegal immigration."
Questions were soon raised about how accurate the administration's figures were. The basic question noted at the top of the article was this: "U.S. says it deported a record 216,000 'criminal aliens' in fiscal 2011, but immigration court statistics show a drop in criminal deportation proceedings from the Bush years. How do those square?"
The answer turned out to be deceptive accounting.
The understated headline in the Washington Post read, "Unusual methods helped ICE break deportation record, e-mails and interviews show". The article reported that in reaching the administration's "record number" of
… 392,862 deportations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement included more than 19,000 immigrants who had exited the previous fiscal year, according to agency statistics. ICE also ran a Mexican repatriation program five weeks longer than ever before, allowing the agency to count at least 6,500 exits that, without the program, would normally have been tallied by the U.S. Border Patrol.
When ICE officials realized in the final weeks of the fiscal year, which ended September 30, that the agency still was in jeopardy of falling short of last year's mark, it scrambled to reach the goal. Officials quietly directed immigration officers to bypass backlogged immigration courts and time-consuming deportation hearings whenever possible, internal e-mails and interviews show.
Instead, officials told immigration officers to encourage eligible foreign nationals to accept a quick pass to their countries without a negative mark on their immigration record, ICE employees said.
Moreover, as my colleague Jessica Vaughan found, some of those caught at the border and returned were counted as "removals" in the much-touted stats on the administration's tough enforcement. (Most of those apprehended by the Border Patrol are counted as "returns", a different category.)
Caught between a downturn in enforcement due to an increased focus on enforcement discretion and the need to sustain an inaccurate narrative of "tough enforcement", the administration chose deception.
And the president admitted as much in a little-noticed White House Q&A.
NEXT: How the President Resolved His Deportation Dilemmas: Part 2